Taking the idea of a cohesive Web template in a slightly different direction

Photo of a cowboy falling off a horseEarlier this week I wrote about reining in the outliers for a university-wide cohesive Web presence. Todd Sanders (@tsand) from the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, had the gall to disagree with me (“for the first time EVER,” I’ll have you note), arguing that the art department shouldn’t look like the business department Web site. While I kid about his gall, I actually had to break it to him that we didn’t make history – we actually do agree on this.

Before you run away calling me a hypocrite, let’s explore this.

Art programs should do what they do best – express themselves creatively. Business programs probably don’t need to be as bold and edgy as an art program would, as they attract a different type of student. I’m not saying business program sites should be stodgy and traditional. Just different.

There are great benefits to using templates across all units of the university, but I do believe there are projects where it is appropriate to stray a bit from the cookie-cutter template. These “other sites” should still be very clear they are part of the overall university identity, but there are a number of ways to do this visually, without forcing them to conform to the standard university template.

At the university I work for, we created a new template for the School of Fine & Performing Arts, and are nearly finished with our year-long project to convert all of the departments and programs within into this new template. Their template is quite different than the overall university template that all other academic and administrative programs use. However – their School still has a cohesive School-wide presence, and there are elements in their template that tie it in to the standard university template.

We’re embarking on a redesign project of the main template and site to go along with the university’s new branding initiative. Part of our challenge will be marry the different templates together, and still clearly project our new creative strategy. I love a good challenge.

I don’t think this approach makes my previous post null and void. I still think there are many appropriate times to use the steps I outlined and push for the standard template. But, I think in the case of the example Todd brought up in the comments, he’s right. What do you think?

 

Flickr photo by Bill Gracey

14 comments

  1. Good point! I think it’s great to be able to stray from the template when the opportunity presents it’s self. The most important thing to keep in mind would be when you do stray from the template you should continue to use a standardized branding that creates cohesion throughout the entire university web presence. At WVU we use a masthead and footer template and then each college is allowed to create a new design within the set masthead and footer upon approval. If you have a massive list of depts. and colleges at your university that need a new design and your staff is limited then starting out with a template and applying it to everyone is a great start. It allows you to focus on the more important stuff like:

    1) Updating and Creating New Content
    2) Site Architecture
    3) Navigation
    4) Accessibility

  2. I think Todd is wrong, and quite an ass for disagreeing with your previous post.

    The truth, for me, is I want each dept in Student Affairs (I’m the SA Webmasster, not a typo) to have a unique look-n-feel because it keeps me employed. Or at least that was my position. Now, thanks to *social* media, my job of (re)designing sites is more of a burden, especially when the content isn’t rethought just regurgitated (read: dated brochure on the Web just add bigger logo and new colors). Content is king, and if he’s a fat, lazy ass it doesn’t matter how pretty his castle is, he’s still worthless.

    I could see the usefulness and time savings of a broad template system; however, the template better kick ass and provide for some creative flexibility (when needed). And I think that’s where the real problem is… we’re talking about visual patterns/molds to form pretty/navigable things with ZERO mention of the content/copy. Pretty plates don’t make the food taste any better, just sayin.

    I’d find it way more useful for my audience to have engaging copy, real photos (think: @fjgaylor) and user-generated content than a universal look-n-feel.

    What does the cookie-cutter concept achieve? Yeah, I’m on University X’s site! I’m not confused! But damn, this info is lame/boring/static…

    I find cookie-cutters are given to the kids you can’t trust to use a knife, for fear of uneven cooking times or bloody messes. I agree this isn’t a bad thing. But when the oven’s buzzer goes off and it’s time to eat, even well cut cookies require great ingredients. Powerful, engaging content is our butter and chocolate, they must be added to the mix or the recipe fails.

  3. Different pages on a site don’t have to look the same to be recognizable as sections of the same school. There are some schools that are expert at pulling this off (SEE Boston University http://www.edustyle.net/tags.php?school=Boston+University and University of Notre Dame http://www.edustyle.net/tags.php?school=University+of+Notre+Dame ). The concept of a single university wide template can create problems if there isn’t room a lot of room for A LOT of customization within it. Some areas will want something simple that they can just follow, but other areas will demand freedom that traditional template block. Using design patterns (common design approaches to design problems) and allowing different levels of conformance to the university template can assist in letting a school have a cohesive web presence without having every page look the same.

  4. With all due respect, the Art Department and anyone else who plays the “but we’re special!” note must know it is overplayed. If they believe that, they are focusing on their needs and not those of their audience.

    We are long past the time when we didn’t have research and experts to rely on in this arena. I strongly recommend two things:

    1. Best practices. There are plenty of go to resources but I like The Design of Sites by Van Duyne, Landay, and Hong. They’ve broken sites down into themes and components based on research. Despite the wailing and gnashing of Art Dept teeth, audiences really do expect consistency (or conformity) across the board. Tell the Art Dept story, but do it in ways that are consistent with the entire university.

    2. Interview your audience. Dictum number one: “you are not your users.” Despite our best intentions (and those of the Art Dept), do we really know our audiences? Most of us do not. Interview them. You’ll find their expectations support best practices.

  5. I feel that if you are going to stray from the template it should be very controlled. There should however be no doubt that they are still on the same site. However I see no reason that all departments cant have the same template. The template is for displaying the branding and personality of the entire campus as a whole. It should be up to the individual departments to display the content needed to give an impression of the department they should be able to do this through the CMS or content submitted to the web development team.

  6. There is facet to this conversation that must be mentioned. And that’s the issue of maintenance. When everybody is using the same template(s), it’s much easier to switch gears and make sweeping changes when necessary.

    That is, IF you’re making good use of top-level style sheets and well-structured code. (if not, then you’re canceling out half of the benefits of a standard look & feel)

    I’m going to skip some of my arguments and simply say that when a university has a good set of customizable templates with content management to boot, then smaller departments and colleges WITHIN that institution don’t have to hire web designers and coders anymore. They can hire CONTENT CREATORS, digital storytellers, marketing and PR-types that ALSO manage websites.

    Such a waste, for a university to have a weak, fractured web presence, complicated by different sets of web people/teams solving all the same problems in isolation. When ultimately, all that’s needed is a solid, yet flexible sandbox for EVERYBODY to play in.

  7. First of all, Rachel. I didn’t think you’re a hypocrite person, as you’ve spoken out the points here! It’s an awesome article, and do you mind if I forward it to my friends/colleagues? 🙂

  8. This discussion centers around departments wanting or needing to be different. I’d like to ask why we offer navigation systems based on departments to begin with. Degree programs are what prospects are interested in. Allegiance to a department doesn’t come into play until a prospective student becomes a current student. Given that, I think a better navigation system is one where subject matter take center stage, not departments. Once you turn that corner, this entire thread becomes moot. More here:

    http://www.heavywinter.com/2009/04/marketing-≠-visitor-experience/

  9. In one way, I really do think the Art department should conform – if for no other reason but consistency of branding. A university is still a branded entity. BUT! Here’s the clincher – and I’ve seen it in non-academic organizations – if a sub entity does not have the freedom to deviate sufficiently, they’ll subvert the parent organization, and go rogue. And since this is detrimental to the parent organization, a strategy MUST be devised allowing for a certain amount of autonomy, while maintaining brand standards.

    Adherence to branding standards is a concept though that must come from the highest level stakeholder. If it doesn’t, it will be undermined.

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